29 Nov 2019

Will Labour address the elephant in the room at annual conference?

2:44 pm on 29 November 2019

Power Play - It's been a tough year for the Labour Party but there will be plenty of opportunities for navel gazing this weekend.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

As many in Parliament start eyeing end-of-year Christmas drinks and nibbles, Labour MPs and party members will get together in Whanganui for the annual conference.

It tops off a year in which the party has been torn asunder by the sexual assault controversy, but also one in which policy gains have been made, and the prime minister widely praised for her handling of the 15 March attacks.

"The party is in really good heart," said Ms Ardern earlier this week, but acknowledged more work was needed.

"To look at the areas we keep needing to focus, those core issues we were elected on: the environment, making sure people have the service they need, and everything to contribute to a good life in New Zealand."

The coalition has made progress across a range of portfolios, including climate change, gun reform, trade, health, and education but the failure to implement a capital gains tax and the original KiwiBuild policy have been a blot on the copy book.

Many of the political challenges have been navigating the choppy waters of the coalition; to reach compromises on policies with three conflicting positions. Part of the test for the prime minister has been to keep control of the ministers from all parties - boundaries New Zealand First continues to push.

While Labour's parliamentary wing has been busy and ends the year with some momentum, the party wing is in a shambles.

The former president, Nigel Haworth, quit in September amid allegations sexual assault allegations had been mishandled, with several other senior officials also involved.

Labour Party President Nigel Haworth.

Labour Party President Nigel Haworth. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Party administrators have gone to ground, not even answering straightforward queries about the conference, clearly fearful of any interactions with the media.

But it's not something the party can, or will, ignore this weekend.

The heat has been taken out of the controversy, for now, while two reviews are carried out.

The first is being done by Maria Dew QC, looking specifically at the allegations made by the complainants - that report is expected to be finished in the coming weeks. There's no guarantee any of it will be made public however, with Ms Ardern saying they'd be guided by the complainants.

Law firm Kensington Swan had been doing work as part of an internal review into how the party dealt with the complaints; that has been handed to an independent third party to pull together a final report - that is expected to take more time and is unlikely to be wrapped up before the end of the year.

When asked if it would have been good to have the Maria Dew report out before the conference, Ms Ardern said it wasn't about politics and the timing of an event, but about improving the long term party culture.

And she may well address the elephant in the room directly, to acknowledge the problem, and assure members that action is being taken to fix it.

Labour MP and minister Poto Williams will run a workshop at the conference, "Creating a safe and inclusive party", which is basically aimed at keeping party volunteers safe and having a better understanding of the issues. Like most of the conference, however, it's closed to the media.

Having worked in the family violence and refuge sector before coming to Parliament, she had already been given the job of working internally to improve the party culture and educate members.

Another consequence was the resignation of the party president, and members will elect a new one tomorrow.

There are three people in the running: Labour's Māori senior vice president Tane Phillips, Claire Szabó, chief executive of Habitat for Humanity, and Lorna Crane from the west coast of the South Island.

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